As the scandal over the book published to coincide with Queen Sofia’s 70th birthday died a media death last week, Royal Spanish Academy member Luis Maria Anson noted in his column in El Mundo last Friday that the author belongs to the controversial Catholic association, Opus Dei. Generally regarded as a very right wing organisation, Sr Anson suggested that in “The Queen from very close up”, journalist Pilar Urbano was in fact putting typical Opus Dei sentiments into the Queen’s mouth and contrasted it with another recent publication, “Doña Sofia, La Reina habla de su vida (The Queen talks about her life)”. According to Sr Anson, its authors, Carmen Enriquez and Emilio Oliva, have produced a much more objective book, based on conversations with the Queen that lasted about 20 hours. In response to critics of the monarchy, Sr Anson pointed out that in a recent United Nations rating of the quality of life and development of the countries belonging to it, seven constitutional monarchies were among the top ten. This number grew to 11 in the top 15. Spain was rated at number 19.
Foreign ministers of the embryonic 43-nation Mediterranean Union meeting in Marseille, France, last Tuesday, announced that Barcelona would be the new group’s headquarters. The union embraces 27 EU states and countries in the Middle East and North Africa which plan to work together in areas such as water, energy and education. French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched the union at a summit in July. Barcelona was the site of a previous EU-led Mediterranean initiative, called the Barcelona Process. Arab-Israeli tensions dogged that process, but diplomats said a compromise deal was reached last week. Despite its initial opposition, Israel finally agreed to the Arab League participating “at all levels” of the union, provided an Israeli was appointed as one of five deputy secretary generals. The secretary general has not yet been named. The union is being co-chaired by Mr Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mr Sarkozy has said the new grouping will help “build peace in the Mediterranean”.
The Supreme Court has sent three army officers to jail for abusing their authority during enemy capture practices when they treated the soldier selected to play the role of enemy prisoner in a “degrading and inhuman” way. The incidents took place in October 2000 on Cabron Beach in the Canary islands. Among other things, the soldier was forced to eat piping hot food while blindfolded and also had cleaning liquid thrown at him. The men had been absolved of the charges by a military court but they will now serve sentences of five, four and three months and will also have to pay an indemnity of €75,000 to the soldier. The men were only identified by the their rank and first names.
One unexpected consequence of the current economic crisis is that more teenagers are staying on at school. Until now, Spain has had one of the EU’s highest school drop-out rates but youngsters are beginning to realise that the more qualifications they have, the better the chance of finding a job. The unemployment figure for October – 2,818,026 – was the highest since April 1996 and some gloom-and-doom merchants predict it could top the four-million mark by the end of next year.
You can’t get a mortgage but you’re desperate to buy a home of your own? Well, head north to Bustarga in Leon province. It’s one of the most beautiful – and coldest -areas of the country, in a nature park close to the Las Medulas mountains. There you can pick up a real bargain – a 100 m2, three-storey stone rural dwelling dating back to 1920. Its walls and wooden beams are in tip-top condition, but there are a couple of drawbacks: it doesn’t have electricity or running water – but what else can you expect for the paltry sum of €14,500.
A loyal ally
Last week wasn’t a bad one for Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. To his great relief, Barak Obama won the US presidential elections thus removing the threat of at least another four years of frosty relations between the two countries. And France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has offered one of the two places he commands – as current European president as well as president of a G-7 – at the G-20 summit to be held in Washington on November 15th. Sr Zapatero had not been invited to the summit because Spain does not belong to the G-20 group of countries, which consists of the seven most developed countries (Spain ranks 8th), Russia, the EU as a bloc and the most important emerging economies. Ever since the summit was announced, Sr Zapatero has been lobbying all and sundry to get an invitation, and the Spanish media have attributed his absence to vindictiveness on the part of George W Bush. They claim he has never forgiven Sr Zapatero for withdrawing the Spanish troops from Iraq but it’s not quite that simple. Throughout the 2004 general election campaign, Sr Zapatero said he would withdraw the troops by the end of June that year, if the United Nations had not taken over the running of Iraq from the US. The war was not popular and the decision to send peace-keeping troops to Iraq was the biggest mistake former President Jose Maria Aznar ever made during his eight years in government. What Sr Zapatero did the day after he was officially sworn in was to announce the immediate withdrawal of the troops – a slightly different scenario from the one he promised. The Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people and injured another 1800 or so, by Islamist radicals happened just three days before the election and most Western leaders viewed Spain’s withdrawal as a capitulation to the terrorists. Then during a visit to Algeria a few weeks later, he made matters worse by publicly urging all US allies to follow suit – a definite diplomatic no-no. Sr Zapatero’s political judgement was further questioned when his government allowed some 850,000 illegal immigrants to become legal in 2005 – thus creating an open door effect the rest of Europe dreaded. In fact, during the year following the legalisation process the influx of illegal immigrants more than quadrupled. Meanwhile, Sr Zapatero had openly backed John Kerry in the US 2004 general election – Bush was re-elected. He publicly rooted for Gerhard Schroeder in the German general election in 2005, which Angela Merkel won – and for Segolene Royal in the 2007 French general election, which Nicolas Sarkozy won. Football fans wanted him banned from attending last year’s European Cup between Spain and Germany because of his tendency to back the loser. He also alienated Tony Blair when it was leaked to the press that his closest advisers were given to referring to the UK PM as “that gilipollas (s**thead)”. While Bush can be blamed for many things, Zapatero’s poor international image is not one of them. Last week, he told a press conference that he would be a friend and loyal ally of Barak Obama, to the amusement of many political observers here. As one said – with friends like him, who needs enemies. Another asked – will he go as far as sending the troops back to Iraq? Probably not, because Obama wants to bring the US troops home within 16 months. Obama has also said he wants to establish good relations with Spain, although Zapatero was not among the world leaders he rang last Thursday. However, the next day Obama broke an eight-year-long silence and called Madrid. The sigh of relief at the PM’s official La Moncloa residence in Madrid could be heard all over the country. Hooray, we’re back in from the cold.
The Queen’s 70th birthday last Sunday was marred by controversy because of a book published last week to mark the event. The national press began to publish excerpts from La Reina Muy de Cerca (The Queen very close up) by writer Pilar Urbano last Friday and her comments on gay marriage caused a furore in the gay community. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made a point of stressing the Queen’s “impeccable services to Spain” at a press conference in the capital of El Salvador where he, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, were attending the 18th Ibero-American Summit. Meanwhile the Royal Household issued a statement saying that “alleged affirmations” by the Queen, as recorded in the book by Sra Urbano, were “inexact”. The statement said the comments were made in private and did not exactly correspond with the Queen’s opinions. The statement continued: “The words (in the book) do not reflect the deep attitude of respect which Her Majesty the Queen has for all people, and her closeness to those who suffer, are persecuted or discriminated against.” Despite the statement, Pilar Urbano is standing by her book. She told reporters: “What the Queen said is what my book says.” She added that the interview process was “perfectly documented” and that revision of the test copies allowed the Queen and the La Zarzuela palace verify and give the green light to her declarations. According to El Pais newspaper, the book was given the go-ahead by the Queen’s secretarial staff, implying that she may not have read the book herself. Queen Sofia has lived in Spain for the past 46 years and has never committed any indiscretion in public. In a biography published in 1993, King Juan Carlos said his wife was his most trusted adviser throughout the years that they lived in the shadow of Francisco Franco and during the often tricky Transition period. Queen Sofia’s brother Constantine was the last King of Greece and she herself spent most of her childhood in Egypt and South Africa during her family’s exile from Greece during World War Two.